He Brightened Lives All Around Him. Then He Went to Work for Foxconn

The suicide of a young Chinese man shows a different side of mega iPhone maker Foxconn.

Among the hundreds of students I taught in a Chinese village, Brad stood out. He gave his final speech first semester singing Christmas carols through the voice of an origami frog he’d made. He acted alongside me in “The Three Little Pigs,” he a pig, I the Big Bad Wolf. The last time I saw him, he had given a final speech spring semester in the voice of William Wallace in Braveheart. His clarion call to freedom in his second language stirred his classmates to sustained applause – common for Brad. He stood maybe five-foot-five and wore the same red flannel shirt, khakis and easy smile every day. You couldn’t help but like him. His real name was Feng, but I chose his English name in honor of another Brad, one of my best friends.

In the Q-and-A after the Braveheart speech, a young woman asked the kind of absurd question that populates Chinese textbooks about the English language: “If you were on a bridge, and you saw a woman drowning, and you jumped in to save her, would you consider yourself a hero?” “No,” came Brad’s immediate reply. “It is every man’s responsibility.” The answer captured Brad’s essence: so cheesy, and yet it came off as totally genuine. Everything he did carried the sweet scent of altruism, and his sunniness seemed real, a rarity in an authoritarian country where smiles can feel state-mandated. As I was leaving the village after a year there, I put “write a letter to Brad and tell him how awesome I think he is” on my to-do list. To my eternal regret, that letter never happened.

The next I heard about him, I was back in the States, five years after my time in the village. Nancy, a classmate of his, called me as I drove from Indianapolis to Chicago and asked if I remembered “Braveheart boy.” She had news: He had jumped to his death from the 14th floor of his dormitory at a factory where he worked in the southern China boomtown of Shenzhen. A brief newspaper account said he left behind a handwritten note in his room: “Too much pressure from work, really in a bad mood.” Coworkers found him. He jumped at 8 a.m.

That somber occasion introduced me to Foxconn, Brad’s employer. His tragic death prompted many questions and thoughts about the company. One thought I didn’t have: that Foxconn was destined to move to my home country, not grudgingly but with welcome mats laid and politicians fawning, and that the state I’d eventually call home
would open a Texas-sized vault of taxpayer money to lure it, relaxing building codes around waterways and shielding it from legal scrutiny and tax policies that homegrown businesses have to abide by – all for the grandiose but vague promises of job growth and economic development. Alas, here we are.

In my disbelief, I came to learn that Foxconn is a Taiwanese company that makes most of the world’s iPhones and other Apple products at city-sized factory complexes, mostly in mainland China. It neatly epitomizes China’s supersonic growth rate of recent decades, in which products and millionaires get manufactured at a dizzying pace as the minions who toil making both feel forgotten. Brad was a cog in this global machine, and his story wasn’t uncommon. In 2010, 18 Foxconn workers attempted suicide. Fourteen succeeded. It prompted Foxconn to order netting installed at its facilities to keep the employees alive. Following the suicide wave, and some fatal factory explosions, came a wave of stories in the global media about the employment tactics of the company: comparatively low wages, long hours, cramped living quarters, depressed workers.

Foxconn, with a strong nudge from Apple, made changes in response, and insisted everything was all good. The message was undercut in multiple ways, though, none more than when Foxconn’s CEO compared his 1-million strong workforce to “animals” at a company event in 2012. While it’s clearly made strides in recent years, most of the changes seemed to come about not voluntarily but to save face, and words like “progressive” or “employee friendly” do not ever spring to mind.

So as my adopted American state prepares to take a big gamble and open its taxpayers’ wallets into Foxconn’s corporate kitty, I remain skeptical and think it’s important to tell Brad’s story. It is every man’s responsibility. ◆

Tune in to WUWM’s (FM 89.7) “Lake Effect” Nov. 21 at 10 a.m. to hear more about the story.

‘Braveheart Boy’ appears in the November 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning October 30, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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Daniel Simmons grew up in St. Paul, Minn., the “good twin” city. He started his writing career covering the midsection for the Mayo Clinic. Since then he’s written about human smuggling by sea in San Diego, the coyote invasion of Chicago and the political circus in Madison. He also got to write about his childhood idol, Larry Bird, for Runners World. He’s the managing editor.